There is nothing worse than the feeling of helplessness we feel when one of our birds gets sick.
Many bird-keepers place their sick birds into a hospital cage and hope for the best. There is nothing wrong with hospital cages if used sensibly but there is a lot more we can do to give them the very best chance of getting better.
To start we must understand what is happening to our bird when it gets ill or is injured. The bird’s number one priority is to fight the cause of its disease whether that is an infection, some sort of injury or organ malfunction.
So the body directs as many of its resources as possible to the site of the disease. Whether it is delivering white cells to an infected area or raw materials to the site of a broken bone the key resource used in this process is blood.
Blood carries the nutrients and immune system cells and bio-chemicals to the affected area. To facilitate this the body widens the blood vessels that serve the target area so that more blood can be delivered. More blood is also required in organs like the heart, lymph nodes and any other parts of the body involved in fighting the cause of the disease. This is why we so often see swelling and reddening of the injured area and feel swelling in glands.
For the bird, just like with ourselves, blood is a scarce resource. If the blood vessels in one area are to be opened up, then blood vessels in another area must be restricted so that the volume of the whole circulatory system is not increased. This is the body’s normal stress response and it works in the same way if the bird is frightened. Just as with fear the organ which normally has its blood supply restricted during illness is the gut.
The digestive organs need feeding just like every other organ in the body. And it gets it nutrients from its blood supply. So the reduction in blood supply caused by illness very often causes a reduction in gut function. This means that normal digestive and absorption functions are often severely curtailed. The result is that many birds actually die of starvation and/or dehydration. Tackling these two problems is the first line of sick bird support. How do we do this?
The key issue is to overcome the limitations of the compromised gut. This means supplying foods that require little or no digestion and are readily absorbed (remember that the key to nutrition is getting nutrients into the bloodstream not into the gut). This means that starches and fats and poor quality protein sources are generally of only limited benefit.
Have you noticed that most birds sit fluffed up when they are sick? This is because they are trying to insulate themselves better as they are having trouble maintaining their body temperature. The temperature problem is either caused by a lack of appetite or inadequate absorption of energy from a poorly functioning gut. Since maintaining its body temperature is the bird’s most pressing problem, energy is the most important nutrient. Remember the gut is not doing a good job so we need a readily absorbable source of energy.
Traditionally sick animal products use glucose. There are two good features about glucose. Firstly it will work quickly because it is very rapidly absorbed into the blood. Sick birds given glucose will tighten their feathers and look more energetic. Secondly glucose is cheap.
But there are two drawbacks to glucose (or any other simple sugar). Firstly they cause osmotic diarrhoea which will lead to worsening of the dehydration. Secondly simple sugars will only give a short term energy boost. So a bird will need to be given glucose every hour or two all through the day and night. How many birds have you known to die overnight? In contrast “short chain glucose polymers” provide diarrhoea free, long term energy (over 12 hours) enabling only twice a day feeding to provide plenty of body warmth.
This is particularly important for sick birds being supported through their drinking water as most species only drink twice a day. This is because wild birds are at their most vulnerable to predators when they are drinking at water holes.
The second most important issue is dehydration. A loss of water from the body through diarrhoea, or in the breath will rapidly lead to death. This problem is easily addressed using electrolytes. These simple, water-soluble minerals enter the bloodstream and from there they suck water out of the gut and into the blood by osmosis.
So cheap electrolyte products are usually a simple mixture of glucose and sodium chloride (salt). As you might expect the better electrolyte products contain a broader range of minerals including potassium and magnesium as well as ingredients to speed up the absorption process. A very few contain short chain glucose polymers for long lasting energy. And these really are the very best.
This combination of technologies makes the ideal first aid products for addition to drinking water of any sick birds. They can also be fed directly to the beak or by crop tube.
Really sick birds
For birds that are still eating and drinking electrolyte products as described are often all they need to give them the boost they need.
Really sick birds may well have stopped eating completely or have very poor digestion. Extra vitamins and protein in addition to energy and electrolytes will help these birds substantially. In particular the protein helps them repair damaged tissue and stops them from burning their own body tissue to keep warm. This is the major cause of weight loss in most sick animals.
A well-designed emergency food product will contain four key nutritional groups:
1. “Short chain glucose polymers” for long lasting energy
2. Electrolytes (and other important minerals such as calcium) for re-hydration and other key body functions
3. A comprehensive vitamin blend to provide health supporting vitamins like A, E and C and a complete package of B group vitamins for efficient energy management
4. A readily absorbed form of balanced protein to prevent the bird from burning up its own muscle tissue as a source of energy
5. Herbal “prebiotic” ingredients to improve the gut environment, act against many germs and stimulate the immune system.
The electrolytes and emergency food products described are totally compatible with appropriate drug, homeopathic or herbal treatments. In fact the energy and vitamins are critical for the effective functioning of the drugs themselves.
Supporting digestive function
Probiotics (live beneficial bacteria) can also be very useful to improve gut function. When the gut stops working properly the conditions in the gut change and become more favourable for pathogenic (disease causing) organisms. Replacing the good guys (probiotics) and making gut conditions better for them (herbal prebiotics) can both be very beneficial.
However they should not be incorporated into electrolytes and emergency food products, as they may be incompatible with antibiotic treatments. There is no point in putting more bacteria into the system if the drugs have to kill them before they can start work on the bad guys! You may actually reduce the chance of a cure!
Instead they should be added to these products only when it is appropriate to do so. Probiotics should not be used with anti-bacterial drugs unless under the direction of a vet who will understand the action of the selected drug and its compatibility with probiotic therapy.
Modern herbal ingredients are now available to stimulate the immune system, act as natural anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-protozoals and prebiotics. Used correctly they can achieve wonderful results but, like so many other treatments, they can be easily mis-used so sound advice should be taken. Herbals are no more the magic cure-all than veterinary drugs are. And some can be dangerous if mis-used!
Extending this technology can enable us to produce product specifically for birds (and animals) with long-term digestive mal-function. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is PDD (Macaw wasting disease) where “complete” foods can incorporate many of the above features with great success.
It is very easy for us to think that sick birds must have “caught” something. Yet enormous numbers of birds are sick simply because they are seriously short of a critical nutrient in their diet. Recent American research highlighted the incredibly frequency of calcium deficiency in captive birds. The simple fact is that, despite the provision of cuttlefish bone and oyster shell grit, many birds get less calcium than they should. They key to calcium supplementation is quality (bio-availability) not quantity.
Easily the most effective form of calcium is a pre-dissolved, super-saturated solution with added vitamin D3 and magnesium. Used correctly this type of product will prevent calcium deficiency in the first place. Equally it will work nearly as fast as an injection in acute cases.
Calcium deficient birds will exhibit a huge range of symptoms from nervousness, aggression and fear to poor co-ordination, weak flying, and difficulty in perching. Many conditions like stargazing, “twirling”, splayed legs and egg binding are frequently mis-diagnosed when calcium deficiency is easily the most likely cause of all these problems.
If you look carefully at the list of symptoms you will notice they all have poor nerve or muscle function at their root. This is not surprising when we understand the role of calcium in these two critical organs. As a result many behavioural problems have calcium deficiency as their cause and we always recommend bio-available calcium as a part of the feeding regime of any difficult birds whether they are aggressive or exhibiting self-mutilation symptoms like feather picking.
Other nutritional problems occur commonly with a variety of vitamin and mineral deficiencies being the most obvious. More surprisingly many birds suffer from protein (and amino acid) deficiency leading to poor feather quality, breeding problems and obesity.
Most sick birds are ill because they have been inappropriately fed over many years. Appropriate treatment will depend on whether they are suffering from chronic (long term) nutritional problems, acute nutritional problems, infection or organ failure. In nearly all cases provision of appropriately designed nutritional products will dramatically increase their chances of survival. Understanding these basic principles and keeping stocks of appropriate products in the cupboard will help save the lives of so many birds.
Reference: Malcolm Green – The Birdcare Company – December 2013